A Summer of Lost Weddings

Our eldest daughter is getting married in September. No decisions have yet been made about what is going to happen with the celebration but most of this year’s wedding season is surely now to be postponed in this new, surreal world. A little section of the first meadow is run as an allotment and my plans had been to mostly grow flowers in there this year – late bloomers that could be cut in September and used at the wedding.

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However, priorities have radically altered during the passage of just one short month and it now feels like we should be hunkering down and growing vegetables to eat rather than flowers which are more about looking beautiful.

We have been working hard in the allotment these past few days and it is all now weeded, dug over and composted and is ready to go. First early potatoes will be going in shortly. I planted out garlic and broad beans last autumn – I find that a very successful slug-deterring strategy since there are no slugs around when they are at their tender and vulnerable stage.

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A delivery is expected this week of a selection of vegetable seeds, some of which we have previously  had good results with and some of which will be experimental. But this isn’t going to become a blog of the trials and tribulations of Growing Your Own, although I cannot guarantee that I won’t be including some of my inevitable failures and maybe even the odd success from the allotment as the year rolls on.

The photo above also shows another new development in the meadows – a flagpole has gone up next to the field shed, a Christmas present that has now finally been put in place.  At the moment we are proudly flying a Union Jack but we have a number of other flags that will be hauled up on relevant occasions.

This fenced off area of the meadows is what we call the Ant paddock. The grass has not been cut in here – certainly not for the five years we have been here but probably for very much longer than that. This has meant that substantial and well established ant hills have had a chance to develop and the grass has become tussocky:

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We have been seeing the Tawny Owl a few times in this Ant paddock area recently on calm, still nights:

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The stone pinnacle is positioned in the middle of the paddock and this next photo is the Owl perching on the camera that points at the pinnacle:

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So we have put another perch up behind, although the Owl is yet to use it:

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Another nocturnal animal is the Badger and we now have a camera on the new tunnel entrance that has been dug actually into the meadow as opposed to into the cliff:

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It is not just us who is interested in this new tunnel:

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I have got so many photographs of the dog peering down this hole. So, what is she smelling?

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It is close to the animal track, used by all the cliff dwellers to get into the second meadow:

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This next photo shows the male, Scarface, taking some bedding to the part of the sett that the baby Badgers have been taken out of, prompting speculation on my part that it might now be being prepared for their return and we might get another glimpse of them as they are carried across:

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A look back at my records shows me that, in 2019, the young Badgers officially came above ground on 16th April. In 2018 it was 17th April and so it looks like we have another two weeks to wait before they properly appear. But this year we don’t have a camera on the burrow that they are currently in and so we may well not know immediately.

All through the winter, the Badgers make fleeting and solitary visits to the nightly peanuts. Now that spring is here, they seem to be more interested and I wonder if it is because the ground is getting harder and worms more difficult to dig for:

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Yet another nocturnal group of animals are the Moths. It has been cold and windy for so long here that the official launch of the 2020 Mothing Season has been delayed.

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However, a couple of nights ago, it got underway and the moth trap went out. I got twelve moths of four species, one of which I couldn’t identify. I keep forgetting how frustrating mothing can be.

We don’t have any Linnets here in the winter, but they have returned to us now to breed:

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The bird ringer has caught and ringed 21 of them on two recent solitary visits to the meadows. He also caught a Linnet that he had first caught when it was a young bird in August 2018. He caught it again in March 2019 and for a third time this week.

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Male Linnet, just starting to develop his breeding plumage

He also caught some other familiar birds:

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Male House Sparrow

The House Sparrows have turned their thoughts to nesting. We were watching a pair trying so hard to make a bat box their home but they couldn’t fit in however much they tried. I was anxiously watching – if they managed to squeeze in then they surely wouldn’t be able to get out again and we would need to mount a rescue. But these bat boxes are really high up.

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At the same time, there were more trying the same thing on another bat box:

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Yet another pair are clearly thinking about putting a deposit down on the House Martin box:

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These Sparrows only seemed to be interested in boxes that that weren’t meant for them. We have many boxes perfectly suitable for them, including a Sparrow Terrace which is specifically for them but needless to say they were completely ignoring all of these.

There are also a pair of Starlings around which must be nesting locally again this year, although of course they haven’t chosen one of our two Starling boxes:

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A little Dunnock below has a beak full of moss and is building a nest somewhere as well:

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This Magpie’s beak is muddy because it has been collecting mud to add to its nest:

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And I was most displeased to see this on the cameras:

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There is a Magpie in the middle cage. I went straight up there to do a site inspection but I have absolutely no idea how it got in there or how it then got out.

It seems a long time since we have witnessed the enjoyable spectacle of a Green woodpecker taking a bath. On this occasion we don’t quite get such a good view as we have in the past but this is something to look forward to as the summer advances:

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It always looks as though the bird has had a near death experience.

The Red Mason Bees have started hatching out in the release boxes. These Bees spent the winter in our fridge:

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On Wednesday, we saw a big raptor circling high above. I had a camera but unfortunately it was not my Canon with its Big Bertha lens attached and this is the best shot that I got:

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We couldn’t work out what this was. But then we heard that a juvenile White-tailed Sea Eagle had flown over the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory on that very same day. Could this be our mystery bird? However much I might wish the answer to be ‘Yes’, I really don’t think it is. But, yesterday, apparently two White-tailed Sea Eagles were circling over Deal and so we are now on high alert, looking to the skies.

What becomes very obvious when you look up is how lovely it is not to see aircraft vapour trails heading out across the North Sea. We did see this one, which is the first we had seen for some days:

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Looking out to sea, there are still ships to be seen in the north to south shipping lane which is the only one we can see from the meadows:

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The YM Wisdom, flying a Singapore flag. On a voyage from Antwerp to Southampton.
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France! I wonder how every thing is getting on there?
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Ville De Bordeaux. This is an interesting ship – it says ‘Airbus A380 onboard’ on the side of it. Airbus has plants in Germany, France, Spain and the UK and components for making their aeroplanes were transferred between the different plants using specially adapted Beluga aircraft. However, the parts for the A380 were too big for the Beluga planes and so Airbus leased three ships instead, including this one, the Ville De Bordeaux.

And I’m finishing today with uplifting blossom that is appearing in the meadows. I may be changing my plans from growing flowers to vegetables in the allotment this year, but the meadows are gearing up to a lovely spring in bloom. And as for our daughter whose wedding plans for September are now looking questionable, well, both she and her fiancé are hospital doctors and currently have other things on their minds.

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Blackthorn and Alexanders
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Pear Blossom just starting in the orchard

 

 

My Obsession With Newts

Last year the Heron, relentlessly successful hunter that it is, cleared the pond of Frogs and Newts. This year, we retaliated by deploying Mackenzie, our scarecrow, who so terrified the Heron that it completely kept away. Actually, Mackenzie scared us a little bit too:

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Mackenzie standing watch over a great pile of Frogspawn

So, we now have a healthy population of Smooth Newts in both ponds and I have become a little bit obsessed. Like Gussie Fink-Nottle, I may soon be keeping them in my bath. As I stood and watched, I could see females with their swollen abdomens full of eggs being escorted around, usually each by two males. A newly purchased polarising filter has helped my camera penetrate into the depths of the water and the resulting photos are now a little better:

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A female with a two male escort

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We fished a couple of the males out and put them into a glass vase so that we could get a better look at them:

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And there is no disputing that they are males:

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The male Smooth Newt in his breeding finery like this is the most wonderful thing. They went back into the pond so that they can continue following their females around. Apparently males perform a ritual courtship dance to entice the females which is a sight to behold and I definitely do want to behold it. I will be standing looking into the pond a lot over the coming few days.

Reluctantly, I am now moving on from Newts, although you, of course, may well have been feeling that you’d already had enough.

This one-eyed fox is around a lot and always comes to the peanuts in the evening:

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Although she is very distinctive at night, she is much less so by day. Below is a screenshot of her from a video and at first sight it doesn’t appear that anything is wrong with her:

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Zoom in a bit more and it is, however, apparent that her left eye is pale blue and looks odd:

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She is currently nursing newly-born cubs, born in a den somewhere on the cliff, and we are very happy to be helping her and her family with a daily small helping of nutritious peanuts.

This is her as well:

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We have also been putting some dried long grass out for the Badgers to take back to their sett as bedding. This camera is looking along the animal path at the top of the cliff:

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The same camera took several videos of this bird below. It is a Redwing but I sent it to the bird ringer to query the fact that the eye stripe and the moustache stripe have black edging which looked very peculiar to me:

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He tells me that it is an Icelandic race Redwing on its way back to its breeding grounds there.

The Badgers have several setts dug into the cliff with tunnels running in under the meadows. About six months ago a vertical hole appeared in the meadow that I would have to describe as a ventilation shaft because it looked too narrow for a Badger to come up through. We stuck a pole near it to remind ourselves that it was there so we didn’t break an ankle. But, overnight last night, this has been dug out into a proper tunnel entrance:

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We have put a camera on it now to see what’s going on.

I have been doing some top-class isolating, spending time tucked away in the mobile hide. It is positioned in a spot sheltered from the strong north-easterlies that have been raging in off the sea all weekend. But it also has a view up the second meadow because I am trying to see if I can locate the Skylark nests:

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Unfortunately I have never been able to sit still for long and I make a really useless wildlife photographer. But once the Skylarks are feeding young, they should be coming and going more often and I have a bigger chance to see them before my patience runs out. However, so as not to alert predators to the nest position, Skylarks land away from the nest and then do a crouching run along the ground and so it will by no means be easy even then.

The Blackthorn is in flower along the northern boundary of the meadows, complementing the chalk bank beautifully:

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We dug down to the chalk in order to build another Stag Beetle log stack. The logs are buried to provide an underground rotting wood habitat for Beetle larvae:

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The new log stack on the right, situated next to the one we built last week.

Some food delivery companies use a pad of sheeps’ wool as insulation for the chilled items and we have put some of this wool out for the birds to see if they want to use it for nesting.  We saw a Crow in the meadow with its beak full:

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Alerted to the fact that they were using the wool, I put a camera on it:

P,L:F,24H,3So, a Crow nest is going to be softly wool-lined somewhere nearby. But I’m not sure we really need more Crows.

Here are some other interesting bird goings-on over the last few days:

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A small flock of Starlings called by to see if we had any Leatherjackets for them
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A Herring Gull came in for a drink. That red spot on its beak is a visual trigger for its chicks to instinctively peck at to get the parent to regurgitate food for them.

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This odd looking bird with weirdly prominent eyes and bulky white leg ring must be a Racing Pigeon. How odd that Pigeons are still being raced during a global pandemic
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A Sparrowhawk. This silent assassin flies low and fast between the cages and the hedgerow to see if it can flush out a small bird.

For the first time for at least a year, a Tawny Owl has landed on this perch in the meadows. How lovely! The natural habitat for a Tawny is woodland and there is not much of that around here which makes it doubly special when we do see them.

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I find myself with more nature time at my disposal than normal. One of the ways I want to spend this is by getting to know more of the insects that call the meadows their home. Such as this parasitic wasp:

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This is a female Ichneumon stramentor. Parasitic Wasps are fascinating things. This one lays its eggs on the caterpillars of the Large Yellow Underwing or Setaceous Hebrew Character moths and its developing larvae then live off the caterpillar. A bit gruesome but interesting nonetheless.

There are a lot of Mining Bees flying at the moment. I have taken photos of many different types but am having trouble identifying them. To do it properly you really need to kill them and put them under the microscope but, in that case, I would much rather let them get on with their lives with me not knowing what species they are. Tawny Mining Bees are easy to identify though:

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I also managed to identify this Hoverfly as a female Eupeodes corollae:

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This is a common European species of Hoverfly whose larvae feed on Aphids. It was tried experimentally to use it in greenhouses and fruit plantations as a method of Aphid control but they were found to be also partial to the fruit, eating more fruit than killing Aphids, so that didn’t work.

So, no news from the wood this time because we haven’t been there. By now the feeders will surely be empty and I worry for all the birds that had become accustomed to coming there. But there is really no benefit to me fretting – visiting the wood is currently illegal and that is that.  It is nearly April and nature will be coming alive in the wood and surrounding farmland and there should now be food available for them from these natural sources and I have to content myself with that for now.

Back When Life Was Normal

Back when life was normal, I only spent half the week in Kent with the meadows, wood and my husband. The other half I spent in Berkshire where I have responsibilities to look after my father. But, using the trail cameras as additional eyes, I felt I was capturing enough of what was going on for it not to be too frustrating. However, these current circumstances mean that I am full time in Kent for now until restrictions are relaxed. It’s a truly horrible time but it’s also important to try to keep focused on the positives and, for me, one of these is that I will have more time to quietly observe spring as it unfolds.

Nature doesn’t know that we humans are going through this crisis and she is carrying on as normal without us. She might even do better than before without us. The spring migration is starting up, butterflies are emerging from hibernation and young are being born – it’s very uplifting if only you are able to keep other dark thoughts at bay.

We have spent the day in lock down and what we surely need now is a few minutes of nature escapism:

The one-eyed Fox has had her cubs:

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She has returned to normal shape
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Her under-carriage showing signs of feeding cubs

She is always a regular attendee at the nightly peanuts and the fat and protein of this food will hopefully be helping her feed her babies.

Newly born Fox cubs can’t thermoregulate and so the female spends most of her time in the den nursing them to begin with, but then progressively lies up above ground nearby, only returning to feed the cubs. The male brings food back for her and then also for the cubs once they start eating solid food at about four weeks old.

I was was worrying that she won’t be good at judging distances with only one eye and might have difficulty catching prey for her young once they are weaned – so I was very pleased to read that she is hopefully not alone and a male should also be helping. Sometimes Fox families band together as well, running both families as a creche, each adult bringing food for all.

Here is the mother Badger. Her undercarriage also showing us that she is feeding cubs:

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In the last post, we had put a pile of dried, long grass out for the Badgers to use as fresh bedding:

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They ignored it the first night – they are sensibly wary of new things –  but the second night they took it all underground as soon as they were up and about:

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Followed by a bit of celebratory mutual grooming:

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In the morning it was all gone:

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The next night, we put another, larger pile out that we had also dried in the greenhouse:

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This all went off to their sett as soon as it got dark:

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Scarface helping too. But he will be in a different burrow to the cubs so perhaps he is taking this back to his house instead.

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By now, those sweet little cubs will be lying on lovely clean sheets and that thought makes me happy.

Two extra trail cameras had been put on duty looking at the hay pile but they have also been getting some great daytime Fox shots:

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It hasn’t rained here for ages now, it seems, and the wild pond is drying up fast. Because the frogspawn was laid in such shallow water, the tadpoles are getting stranded into isolated pools, no longer able to reach the main body of the pond

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A small creek where once there was a lagoon

We have been carrying out rescue missions, creating canals and trying to flush them down it or simply scooping them up in buckets and transferring them into deeper water:

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The new hedgerow must also need watering again by now. We bought a new type of hose that you leave in position and water slowly oozes out:

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This seemed like a good idea – however, the hedgerow is a long way away from the tap and the hosepipe between the two is very long with several weak joints that keep exploding open. The hedgerow is 85m long. This oozing hose is only 30m long, but the water pressure we can achieve means that water comes out of only the first 15m of it. The long and the short of it is that the whole thing was very aggravating and the hedgerow has still mostly not been watered. If we are going to keep it alive through this coming summer, we are going to have to get our act together a bit better than this.

But the lovely sunshine is not just causing us tadpole and hedgerow problems, it is also bringing the meadows to life. Its fantastic to be seeing Butterflies again – mostly Peacocks at the moment, and what lovely things they are:

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The Reptile Ecologist had been in contact about coming to the meadows to start monitoring the wellbeing of the Slow Worms who came to live here last year after he  moved them from land that is to be developed. However, after the news that the country was going into lock down, his visit has been postponed for now. We do have some roofing felt, though, and so we have put four squares out by the log piles that he built for them and will start the monitoring ourselves and report our observations back to him.

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With the additional quiet observation time available to us at the moment, we have identified two nests so far. A Magpie nest high in a Pine tree has a Magpie sitting on eggs and this morning a Robin was out collecting moss and repeatedly flying back to the same place in dense Ivy:

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Inevitably, this is very close to the Magpie nest but there is nothing to be done. A future drama in the making, perhaps.

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Fitting in a gratuitous Magpie photo here

There is much Newt interest going on in the ponds. The male Smooth Newts are looking fabulous at the moment, with their Leopard spots and flashes of red on their tails:

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The females with distended abdomens are full of eggs and are being escorted about the place by the males:

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I have ordered a polarising filter for my camera – due tomorrow apparently – and so I am hoping for a future improvement in the quality of my Newt photography.

Yesterday we saw this cruise ship – the Oceana – approaching Dover port:

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It used to be completely normal to see cruise ships arriving at and leaving Dover. A couple of years ago we stood in the meadows looking through binoculars and waving at a cruise ship we knew my aunt and uncle were on, setting off from Dover on their way up to the Norwegian Fjords.  Sadly they didn’t see us – too busy being served champagne in their cabin by their butler, I think!

However, the Oceana now looked like some sort of anachronistic dinosaur seeking somewhere to rest its bones and I do hope there weren’t any passengers on board.

On Monday we went to the wood. The visit seemed overshadowed by the ominously gathering clouds of an impending lock-down and I was mentally preparing myself for it being our last trip to the wood for quite a while.

Even though I had put a plaster over half the LEDs on this trail camera, it seems that I still haven’t managed to ramp them down enough and the Tawny Owl is hopelessly over exposed.

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Not here, though. It is concentrating so hard as it hunts for worms on the woodland floor:

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Jay on the perch
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Symmetrical Wood Pigeon

The project to discover if there are Hazel Dormice living in the wood will now have to be put on hold until life is back to some semblance of normality. However, now that Wild Honeysuckle has started to sprout, we see that there is actually loads of it already growing in the wood. Honeysuckle is vital to the Hazel Dormouse and so this is really good news.

Our wood is on the right of this track below and most of the trees along this stretch are supporting lots of Honeysuckle growth:

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Honeysuckle growing in profusion up the tree
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A great tangle of Honeysuckle

When we looked in the autumn, we had thought that we didn’t have much in the wood and so I have been growing some more on in the greenhouse over the winter. On Monday, we planted all these new plants out:

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Ten Wild Honeysuckle plants
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The new plants in front of an immense untidy Honeysuckle web already growing in the wood
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One of the new plants, sited near a tree that isn’t currently supporting honeysuckle

We had a leisurely stroll around the wood:

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Lizard in the regeneration area
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A lovely big patch of the Town Hall Clock (Moschatel)
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Picked up two bags of the plastic tree guards that are lying around all over the woodland floor of the new wood. Many more bags worth to go. We are using these black bin bags again and again – don’t worry

The most exciting discovery was a newly excavated Great Spotted Woodpecker hole. The Woodpeckers never use the same hole twice but often use the same tree – this is the same tree as last year and is now the 5th hole in the tree!

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I would like to try to photograph the young Woodpeckers looking out of this hole when the time comes. I really hope we get to return to the wood before these youngsters hatch and fledge…

 

Parsley of Alexandria

It has been a wet winter and Badgers haven’t been collecting new bedding anything like as often as we have seen in previous years. Presumably they can’t find anything dry enough. They did do some bedding runs this week, however. This trip below took back some grass from a pile that is now really composted and definitely will not be very pleasant as bedding.

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A couple of other loads were of leaves that have collected under the hedgerows which was a good idea of theirs. But there was also this load of reeds from the pond margins which, again, must be damp.

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The mother Badger has already moved her three cubs out of one burrow and my guess is that this was because it was getting disagreeable in there:

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We did a bit of cutting of the long grass around the trees in the orchard – it will be apple blossom time soon and we want it to look lovely (..and isn’t that a joyful thought to look forward to).

I would like the baby badgers to be lying on sweet-smelling, dry hay. To this end, we put the cut grass from the orchard in wheel barrows and dried it in the greenhouse for a couple of days

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Two wheelbarrows of cut long grass going into the greenhouse to dry

Then, last night, we put it out near the sett so that they can drag it underground.

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However, this story will have to be continued next time. Badgers are naturally and understandably wary of new things and they didn’t take any of this as bedding last night but I am certain that they will shortly. We have another batch of grass drying in the greenhouse as well.

The Foxes and Badgers, both animals of the night, live in close proximity here and if you ever wondered about the interaction between Foxes and Badgers and which one rules supreme, this photo should give you the answer:

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Foxes always give way to Badgers. The pregnant one-eyed Fox has been filmed up at the strip and she still hasn’t had her cubs:

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Alexanders are growing vigorously all around the margins of the meadows at this time of year. The Romans introduced this plant – it was originally called Parsley of Alexandria – and every part of the plant is edible, either raw or cooked, tasting like celery but also like parsley. We have used the raw leaves as a salad garnish in the past but maybe we should be more adventurous in these times of uncertain food supply.

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Alexanders growing strongly along the hedgerows

There was a recipe in the paper for making dandelion and nettle leaf crisps and I thought I would try that using Alexander leaves:

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Alexander leaves
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Washed, dried, tossed in olive oil and salt and put in the oven at a low heat (130 fan oven) for 15 mins until crisp
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Alexander Crisps

They were nicely crisp but we found them rather underwhelming, although adding some sunflower and pumpkin seeds for the last 5 minutes might give it more interest. However, it was all hardly worth the effort – I will need to experiment with cooking the stem and root if I am serious about properly using it as an alternative food source.

The flowers of the Alexanders are attractive to a wide variety of different flies. This Fly below was very patient and stayed put long enough for me to get photographs good enough to identify it:

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I know from previous experience that sometimes a correct ID can hinge on the smallest of details and so it is important to get clear photos from all angles. In the case of this fly, it turned out that the important fact was that its leg tarsi and tibiae are not all dark.

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Internet photo of the leg of a Fly

Therefore, I am able to say with a certain degree of confidence that this is the Tapered Drone Fly (Eristalis pertinax) rather than the very similar Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax, which has all-dark legs). Now that I have identified and recognise this Fly, I notice there are absolutely loads of them basking along the hedgerows at the moment.

The larval stage of both of these Fly species have the wonderful name of rat-tailed maggots:

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Internet photo of a rat-tailed maggot

The rat-tail bit acts as a snorkel so that it can breath air whilst underwater, allowing them to live in stagnant ditches and really polluted waters with low Oxygen content. These larvae became briefly infamous in 2017 when they were found living in the composting toilets (the ‘Long Drops’) at Glastonbury festival.

Bee-flies have arrived in the meadows, really marking the beginning of spring for us:

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Dark-edged Bee-fly – the most common type
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Another Dark-edged one. The name refers to the dark leading edge of the wing.
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The more unusual Dotted Bee-fly with spots on its wings

Mining Bees are around in the spring when the soil is still damp enough for them to dig their tunnels down into it. These Bee-flies look sweet and furry but are parasitic on the Mining Bees and really do not have a cuddly lifestyle. They flick their eggs into the Mining Bee tunnels with great precision and their larvae then live off the Bee larvae and their pollen store.

One of the Mining Bees that the Bee-fly will be parasitising is the Tawny Mining Bee with its fantastic fox-red and bright ginger colouring. Honestly, what a stunning Bee:

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Another category of Bee are the Mason Bees that build walls of mud to make individual cells for each of their eggs. Our annual delivery of Red Mason Bee cocoons and nesting tubes has just arrived in the post:

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Red Mason Bee cocoons and their nesting tubes

We have also been keeping Red Mason Bee cocoons in our own fridge over the winter and these have come out now too:

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More space in the fridge now that these are going out into the meadows

All the cocoons have gone into the meadows in release boxes to hatch out when they are good and ready.

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Two Bee release boxes

I was delighted to find a caterpillar the other day and be able to wield my new caterpillar field guide for the first time and identify it. A definite early victory:

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I discovered that it was the caterpillar of the Angle Shades Moth – a very distinctive Moth that I frequently get in the Moth trap:

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Side view of the Angle Shades caterpillar. This caterpillar was 33mm long – really quite large.
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Angle Shades caterpillar – top view
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Angle Shades moth (internet photo)

A Brambling turned up on the strip this week, the first one that I have seen this year. These birds are winter visitors from Scandinavia  but we haven’t had many across this year because it has been mild and they have largely stayed there. This one will no doubt be returning back across the North Sea to breed there shortly.

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The bird ringer has now ringed four Yellowhammers on the strip. However, I am still seeing non-ringed birds on the cameras so there are some more available for him:

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This bird does not have a ring on its right leg
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Nor does this Yellowhammer (although it could always be the same bird)

I am including the photo below because the expression on the Wood Pigeon’s face exactly sums up how I feel about Magpies:

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They have been collecting mud for their nesting activities from around the painters tray bath up on the strip:

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This shallow bath pond needs filling up every day even though the weather is not hot at this time of year. The trouble is that, as well as there being lots of small bird visitors, daintily drinking and bathing..

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Brambling and Chaffinch
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Yellowhammer and Chaffinch

..a lot of big bruisers use it as well:

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Crows

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Magpies

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Herring Gulls, adult and juvenile

Magpies are not the only birds we have seen gathering nesting materials. A camera looking at the wet mud at the side of the pond has caught several different species. Here is a Song Thrush with muddy reeds in its beak

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Increasing numbers of lovely Slow Worms are warming up under the sampling squares:

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This Lizard got rolled over by accident as I looked under the square. I had forgotten what colourful undersides they have:

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Another marker of spring in the meadows is when the Cowslips come into flower and here is the first one now out:

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In these unsettling times, there has to be a chance that a population lock-down becomes necessary as it has in other countries and we won’t be able to get to the wood like we have been. Thoughts like that make every visit we do now make very precious.

It is Primrose season in the more open areas of the wood:

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Easter Bunnies posing nicely:

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A magnificent animal, the male Pheasant, although there are rather a lot of them around:

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The female Pheasants are still doing a lot of this, whatever ‘this’ is:

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Finally, since we have available logs, why not build a third Beetle stack back at the meadows? Here is another car full of logs coming back, giving another project for us to be getting on with whilst we keep our heads down over the coming days.

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Woodland Isolation

These are anxious times and its difficult not to be glued to the BBC website trying to keep up with the rapidly changing situation. For us, given that we have responsibilities for caring for an older generation, it seems sensible to socially withdraw as much as possible. There are several nature projects outstanding that would be perfect things to get on with whilst in splendid isolation which also provide escapism from a very scary world.

Our coppicing endeavours over the winter have resulted in large piles of wood of various sizes that we now need to do something with.

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Piles of brash

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We are starting to build a circular(ish) compound with dead hedging walls using the brash and will also incorporate some tall poles to string a tarpaulin over to make a temporary roof. We could even see if the dog is prepared to be contained in there for a while, although I suspect she won’t be.

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Progress to date on the round house. It won’t win any architectural awards but it is something to do with the cut wood as well as providing some shelter once we string up a tarpaulin.

Another thing we wanted to do was to build a second Stag Beetle log stack back in the meadows. The idea is to bury wood underground to slowly rot down which can then be used as food by Beetle larvae, hopefully including the declining Stag Beetle. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species have produced a fact sheet with information on how best to do this, an extract of which is shown below.

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The logs should be at least as thick as a human arm. Now that we have the battery-powered chain saw, we have a pile of these larger logs available:

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Taking a car-full back to the meadows
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Location decided upon – tucked behind this Cherry so that it will be partially shaded to keep the logs from drying out
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Digging the hole
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Wedging the logs
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The completed log stack

The bird ringer has been back in the meadows and ringed two more Yellowhammer:

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A female born last year
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The tail feathers of the female
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Male born last year

Telling the difference between the male and the female in these young birds was tricky, hinging on the colour of the feather shaft and how far down the brown colouring reached on the head feathers. Not something that would be possible when just observing the bird through a pair of binoculars.

This is a very tatty looking young Dunnock:

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Adult birds will moult and get new feathers once they have finished raising their young at the end of each summer. However, young birds born in the spring with fresh new feathers, will not moult again that same summer. Therefore, by the next summer, their feathers are nearly a year and a half old by the time of their first moult. This is why this young bird is looking so dishevelled at this point- its feathers are so old and yet it is still just about to embark on raising a family.

I am seeing this Fox on the cameras a lot:

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It gave me a shock at first since it seemed that her right eye was scarily lit up. But then I realised that actually both her eyes should be lit up by the infra-red and so the explanation is probably that she has lost her left eye.

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Here she is again and it becomes obvious that she is also heavily pregnant:

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At the end of January, this Fox had a wound to his cheek:

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Happily, he has survived this injury because here he is now, with the scabs falling off, taking some fur with them, so that is a happy bit of Fox news.

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Not all of our Foxes are carrying injuries though. Mostly they look in good condition such as this lovely, healthy one below, surveying the Badger sett:

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Magpies have eaten nearly all of the Frogspawn in the wild pond. Having got a taste for it, they were also having a go at the spawn in the hide pond, although that is laid in much deeper water:

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However, it was too late because, the next day, the spawn hatched:

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These Tadpoles will shortly be dispersing throughout the pond, where they will be making a nice tasty meal for Dragonfly larvae, Newts and no doubt many other things, a very small percentage eventually becoming Frogs.

The Magpies are still visiting the wild pond even though all the spawn has gone. They are collecting wet mud and reeds for nest building:

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Blackbirds as well. It is the female Blackbirds that do all the nest building:

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I have been growing on some Horseshoe Vetch in the greenhouse over the winter and now I have just planted it out into the meadows. This is a larval food plant of the Adonis Blue and the Chalk Hill Blue Butterflies  – both rare Butterflies but ones that do live on chalk downland so long as there is Horseshoe Vetch available.

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We have seen our first Butterflies of the year in the meadows:

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Peacock on the 16th
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A very ropey Comma on 17th

Both of these Butterflies hibernate as adults and so they are very early fliers as a result.

One of the Beech trees in the meadows has a lot of this Lichen, Arthonia radiata, showing black fruiting bodies.

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Lichens are an association of a fungus and an alga which is symbiotic – mutually beneficial to them both. The fungal part benefits from the carbohydrates that the algae produce by photosynthesis and the algal part benefits from the protection and anchorage of the fungal filaments that can also absorb moisture and nutrients from the atmosphere – Lichens can get all the nutrients they need from rainwater and dust.

The fruiting bodies are only produced by the fungal partner and the spores get dispersed and germinate but then must quickly form an association with a suitable alga if it is to develop into a Lichen. I find this all completely fascinating and must put aside some time to learn more.

We are still enjoying seeing the awakening Reptiles:

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Two large Slow Worm
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Two juvenile Slow Worm and some Leatherjackets (Crane Fly larvae)
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Viviperous Lizard

The field alongside the meadows was being harrowed recently and the dog was going bonkers chasing the tractor up and down the field. This involved going over the gate many times.

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She was exhausted and extremely well exercised.

Moving back to the wood, I have seen my first Mining Bee of the year, resting up on the side of a bird box:

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Gwynne’s Mining Bee – male. One of our most common mining bees

One of these bird boxes has been gnawed by something to make the hole much larger:

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We only put this box up in the autumn and so it has not had the chance to ever be occupied and so the gnawing was not to get at something. A bit of a mystery but we suspect Squirrels.

The Tawny is worming in the same spot every night.

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We have put a camera on a perch and found that it does use that although I need to reduce the infra red power:

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The Redwing are still in the wood. These birds will be on passage, in the process of travelling back to their breeding grounds:

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Two Redwing
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Redwing

Here are a couple of lovely Jay shots at the same pond:

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The male Pheasants are displaying to their females by making themselves appear large:

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I’m not sure what the females are doing here but there is a lot of it going on:

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The final photo for today is some sort of confrontation taking place on the woodland floor but I’m afraid that I can’t tell you why it is happening and who won:

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Saga of the Spawn

Smugness, as well as being decidedly unattractive in a person, is also most ill-advised since pride so often seems to come before a fall.  I was so pleased that we had built a scarecrow at the wild pond which successfully kept the Heron away, the Frogs then remaining alive to lay masses of lovely frogspawn this year.

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So much Frogspawn in the wild pond
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Moving one of the dollops of spawn that had been laid in water so shallow that we thought it might dry up while we were away

We have been away on Dartmoor for a week but have returned to find that all the  Frogspawn has completely disappeared from the wild pond. Unfortunately, it is not because it has hatched – there are no tadpoles to be seen. We did have a camera on the spawn and there were lots of photos Magpies wading into the shallow water:

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Frogs do seem to prefer to lay their eggs in the shallowest of water, presumably because that water will be warmer. However, this has meant that these opportunistic birds have been able to get at it and seem to have eaten every single piece.

But the good news is that, at the hide pond, the Frogs laid their spawn into deeper water and this still remains:

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In 2018 we saw no Yellowhammers in the meadows. This was such a sadness because land like ours should, by rights, have had many of them singing along the hedgerows. But one of the wildlife highlights of last year was the pair of Yellowhammers feeding on the strip. who then went on to successfully fledge two young by the end of the summer.

This is a rubbish photo, I’m afraid, with dew on the trail camera lens, but there are five Yellowhammer in it. Surely our strategy of putting supplementary food down for these farmland birds is now paying dividends, although obviously I am avoiding any suggestion of smugness so that they don’t immediately disappear.

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Five Yellowhammer

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We made arrangements for seed to still go down on the strip while we are away and it is great to see that the birds are still here on our return.

The bird ringer has been ringing in the meadows for the first time this year on a glorious, calm and sunny morning. He caught this young male, born last year:

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He also caught this male Linnet, again born last summer, who is just starting to develop his lovely red breast ready for the breeding season ahead:

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He saw two Buzzard overhead which is a very unusual sight for here at the coast and a soaring Sparrowhawk:

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One of the Buzzard on the right, being chased off by an irritated Crow
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Sparrowhawk

I have been trying to get photos of the Skylarks that are certainly trying to establish territories in the second meadow. Here are the best I’ve got for you so far:

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I didn’t realise before that their crest was striped

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At this time of year there are very few insects around, but we did see this Fly with a yellow furry abdomen feeding on the nectar of the Blackthorn:

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Thank you to our son for not only spotting this fly in the first place but also then managing to get these photos in focus where I failed.

This is a male Yellow Dung Fly, Scathophaga stercoraria. These common flies are mainly carnivorous, usually feeding on smaller flies and insects in the vicinity of cow pats, although they do take nectar as well. The nearest cows are a long way from here although we do have horses a couple of fields away. Yellow Dung Flies may be common but I have certainly never noticed a furry yellow fly like that before.

I have previously mentioned this cup fungus that is growing all over a heap of rotting hay, but they are so peculiar that thought they deserved a second airing:

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A beautiful Fox at 5pm, waiting for the peanuts – optimistically early

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This Fox has found a fish:

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Yesterday the reptiles started to wake up and it is lovely to see them again. There was a Lizard and two Slow Worm warming up under the sampling squares:

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Moving to the wood, while we have been away the Tawny was worming more or less every night:

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We have been working round the Owl boxes with a camera on a pole to see what has been building nests in them. The Tawny boxes all have Squirrels in them and now I can report that both Barn Owl boxes also do:

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Leaves being brought up to the box

We plan to shoo the Squirrels away later in the summer once they have had a chance to raise their young.

Two Redwing have been regularly using this pond in the wood:

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One of the Redwing on the right with its marked eyestripe and red armpits
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Redwing having a bath

A female Bullfinch has also been seen:

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There are an awful lot of Pheasants still, loitering under the bird feeders in the wood, including this odd looking male with lots of blonde on his wing:

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This Pheasant below is also still around for which I currently don’t have an explanation. Much darker than a female and so my best guess is an immature male but I need to ask the bird ringer when I next see him:

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Although fellow wood owners have reported seeing Deer in their woods, this is the first time we have seen one in ours:

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I am not terribly familiar with Deer and so I had a look in our book on Mammals to find out what Deer this is and I discovered that it is a Roe Deer. If it was a view of a Fallow Deer from the same angle, we would see black markings around the tail area as in this internet photo below:

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I finish today with an exciting new book that has just been published and I have bought to fill a gap in our natural history library:

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We often find Caterpillars that, frustratingly, we are unable to identify and this new book should really help with that. Roll on the spring!

 

 

 

 

Farmland Birds – Year 3

A strip of land in the second meadow has been rotavated for the past two years to create an agricultural field-type habitat to encourage farmland birds. We have now started Year  Three of this project:

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The strip of land about to be to be rotavated for the third year

In the first year, it was really difficult to break through the sward of grass and, in the end, we needed to bring in a digger. Last year it was done with a rotavator but was still really tough work. This year it was a little bit easier, although it is still not a job that we have actually done ourselves. Maybe next year.

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A landscape gardener rotavating the strip for us
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Job completed for another year.

The idea is that, by breaking up the thick grass mat, the seed bank within the soil can get a chance to germinate and become weedy plants bearing seed to feed farmland birds. It is also the sort of thing that Turtle Doves are looking out for as they pass overhead on their way back from Africa. Perhaps they will be sufficiently intrigued to fly down to take a closer look and then find the supplementary food that we will be putting down and decide to stay.

In meadows that are not ever ploughed, it is good wildlife management to get them grazed by cattle. The sheer heaviness of the animals causes their hooves to break up, or ‘poach’, the ground creating little soil pockets where weedy plants can establish. We do not want the responsibility of livestock – but we have noticed that all the millions of worm casts across the meadows this winter seem to be fulfilling the same function:

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Seeds germinating on the worm casts

Every evening, thousands of Gulls fly over the meadows in the hour before dark to get from their inland feeding grounds to roost on the sea overnight. It is an atmospheric daily spectacle that I love to stand and watch. We rarely see Gulls actually land in the meadows but this newly turned-over earth brought a couple in to look for worms:

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Not a bird held in high esteem by many, the Herring Gull is, however, really rather magnificent and is a red listed bird, the species being of highest conservation priority due to ongoing population declines. There do still seem to be quite a few of them along Deal seafront hanging around people eating chips, although deep fried potato cannot be a nutritious way to live their lives.

The annual Frog Spawning Fiesta is now nearly over for another year.

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We have an unprecedented volume of spawn maturing nicely in both ponds:

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The hide pond. We have only previously had a very small amount in this pond
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Absolutely masses in the wild pond this year
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Smooth Newt coming for air

Our Scarecrow, Mackenzie, has been a complete Amphibian Hero and the Heron has not visited the pond once since he went out to guard it. We will leave him in position a bit longer because there seem to be a lot of vulnerable Newts loafing around in open water at the moment and then we will retire him to a shed to maintain his shock value for when he is next deployed.

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Seen offshore in the photo above is the Galatea. This ship often moors up with us and it feels like an old friend coming to visit when we see it roll up towards dusk and drop anchor:

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Digiscoping!

It is a lighthouse tender operated by Trinity House who look after all of our country’s lighthouses and marine navigation aids. I suppose she is often in these waters because of the many warning beacons around the Goodwin Sands.

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Extract from a 1973 navigation chart that we have, showing the infamous Goodwin Sands
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Galatea at dawn

Since the meadows look east, we get some magnificent sun rises here. Here is the astounding sky at around 6.30am Friday morning:

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Turtle Doves and Grey Partridge are two red listed farmland birds that we hope will be visiting the strip this summer. However, there are another two red listed farmland species that are already here, Yellowhammer and Linnet:

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Yellowhammer and Linnet
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Three Yellowhammer in the cages and one on top. So hopefully two breeding pairs this year?

A group of around ten amber listed Stock Dove have been visiting the strip all winter as well, another declining farmland bird that we are pleased to welcome here:

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Here is a shot from the same camera last weekend when the light conditions made the sea appear almost yellow:

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One morning I found that I had pointed one of the cameras too high into the sky, missing the ground. However, this did lead to some interesting results:

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Female Sparrowhawk hunting along the hedgerow

Before we leave the strip for today, we did have a brief appearance of a group of Starlings. It is usually in March every year that large numbers of Starling gather in the meadows awaiting good conditions to get themselves across the sea back to their breeding grounds in mainland Europe. There are Starlings resident in the UK but their numbers are greatly swelled in the winter by EU birds coming in to join them. We don’t normally see Starlings in the meadows during the winter and so perhaps this little group are migrants starting to return across the Channel earlier than usual.

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We are still seeing nesting activity going on. Inevitably, it is our most disreputable nest box that is the most popular every year. Blue Tits started laying claim to this one from January onwards:

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My grandparents lived in beautiful Newton Ferrers in Devon when I was growing up and I have a clear memory of going to the cinema in Plymouth to watch the new Dr Dolittle film in 1967 and being fascinated by the Pushmi Pullyu.

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The Foxes are staging their own version here:

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Well, ok, maybe not.

This photo of a Fox from last night shows that all Fox cubs are not yet born:

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In the wood, several of the large bird boxes now have sticks protruding from them and we put a trail camera onto a pole to see if it could show us what is going on. The results are in for two of the boxes so far – both Tawny Owl boxes:

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Oh well, it is Squirrels that have made their homes in them.

In discussion with the bird ringer, we have decided to leave the Squirrels be for now. Although Tawny Owls generally don’t lay their first egg until the third week of March, they will definitely have chosen their nest site by now. So if there are Squirrels in these boxes, then these are not Tawny nest sites and removing the Squirrels at this point will not change that for this year. Also, Squirrels give birth from mid February to mid April and so there is a chance that there are young Squirrels – kits – in the boxes.

I wonder where this Tawny, busy worming below, is nesting then?  Probably in the larger, mature trees in the other parts of the wider wood:

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We had a son visiting this weekend who made the mistake of saying that he was happy to help us with coppicing in the wood:

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It had been weeks since we last did any coppicing because of the appalling weather but this weekend we were finally back out working. Frustratingly, we did forget to bring the chain for the chainsaw and so we were doing it by hand but, with three of us on it, we got a fair bit done.

There’s a big finish today with this enormous bird – a Buzzard – that came down to the pond to have a look to see what was going on. Shame it didn’t show us its face.

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